Beyond Being: Graham Harman and Emmanuel Levinas

On its face, there is perhaps little common ground to be found between the advocates of what is now called “Object-Oriented Ontology” and The Humanist Lens. OOO has gained quite a bit of momentum on the internet and the academy as an internally-consistent challenge to the sort of Heideggerian consensus amongst philosophers who identify as continental: namely, that things in the world are meaningful only insofar as they maintain relations with the human self (dasein, for Heidegger), the site through which the grand narrative of Being reveals [and conceals] itself in the history of philosophy. OOO philosophers deny this. For them, objects are not swept up into this sea of human-centered meaning; instead, they have a sort of autonomy and individuality as objects. Hence, the label “object-oriented.” Therefore, according to OOO, continental philosophy is naively anthropomorphic insofar as it follows this basic Heideggerian obsession with meaning in relation to dasein. Given this position, then, it is no surprise that naturalism and the univocity of being, among other contentions, are natural allies for OOO.

Quite obviously, OOO is an anti-humanism. So why is the movement of interest to The Humanist Lens? This question is answered with OOO philosopher Graham Harman’s article entitled “Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger.” Emmanuel Levinas is one of the great critics of Heidegger and, according to Harman, a possible blueprint for his own object-oriented philosophy:

While Heidegger submits all objects to a relational system of tools serving a series of purposes, Levinas objects to this form of holism. Entities are not simply dissolved in some global system of purposes, but close off in themselves, with a sort of inviolable integrity apart from all networks or functions.

Indeed, there is a sense in which Levinas’ project proceeds in a way that is similar to Harman’s. While the former has no time for the language of object-hood or Aristotelian substance, he does arrive at similar conclusions via an emphasis on alterity as transcendence. For Levinas, the all-encompassing nexus of meaning that characterizes Heidegger’s philosophy of Being cannot ultimately escape the narcissistic subjectivism that it is meant to overcome. Thus, Levinas argues that philosophy begins with an “infinite demand” of responsibility that transcends all structures of intelligible Being–thereby drawing on the classic idea of the “Good beyond being” in Plato’s Republic. In this way, then, Harman’s object-oriented approach agrees with Levinas that philosophy ought to be concerned ultimately with that which is beyond the Heideggerian process of Being.

However, even Harman knows that this partnership between him and Levinas is a limited one. “My one criticism of the Levinasian approach is that it remains too human-centered … Things may hide behind their contours in substantial plenitude, resisting human effort, but Levinas also seems to grant them independence only when humans are on the scene to feel resistance.” Here, Harman notes the radical difference between his own object-oriented project and Levinas’ ethical philosophy of the ‘Other’: the difference between anti-humanism and humanism, respectively. At bottom, Levinas’ recovery of transcendence has everything to do with maintaining the inviolable dignity of human beings. Indeed, remaining very much in his own Jewish tradition, Levinas is concerned with the human beings as they bear the “trace” of the divine image.

So, while Harman’s essay makes an interesting and even valid point about the similar implications of OOO and Levinasian humanism (regarding the status of objects), there is little doubt that this similarity is accidental rather than substantive. In fact, there may even be good reason to believe that Levinas would accuse OOO of falling prey, ironically, to the same temptation as Heidegger: namely, the subsummation of transcendence to an imminent, univocal intelligibility. In the case of OOO, however, this subsummation takes place under the guise of an all-encompassing naturalism–rather than the anthropomorphic Being of Heidegger.

The true Levinasian task is to maintain an ethical relation that does not owe itself to a greater, impersonal totality. As Jens Zimmermann remarks in Incarnational Humanism,

[20th century French philosophy] had loudly declared ‘the end of humanism, end of metaphysics, the death of man, death of God,’ slogans which Levinas rejects as Parisian fads that will soon be “reduced to bargain prices and downgraded.” Yet he detects in these announcements a general tendency of philosophy to measure human dignity by means of some greater theological or philosophical system or totality. Against any such attempts, Levinas resolutely affirms that all meaning takes its measure from our ethical responsibility. The human is indeed “holy” for Levinas, in the sense that we are human prior to any other consideration.

 

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